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Bush, Once Reluctant on Sanctions, Prepares to Take Tough Line with Syria

The United States is about to impose tough sanctions on Syria because of its support for terrorism, its failure to recognize international borders and its weapons of mass destruction programs — all elements that threaten not only Israel, but the United States, too.

The Bush administration’s deepening involvement in the Middle East has led it to embrace sanctions legislation that it once reviled. And Syria is about to be sidelined by the resistance to change that just three years ago made Syria’s Assad dynasty a celebrated bulwark of Arab nationalism.

The Syria Accountability Act may have been framed by some of Israel’s best friends in Congress to rein in a threat to the Jewish state, but it is about to become a reality because of the threat that Syrian recalcitrance poses to U.S. interests in the region.

The legislation, which Congress passed in November and was signed into law by President Bush on Dec. 12, required the president to report to Congress on how to implement the sanctions.

Now, instead of reluctantly dragging out the report until a June deadline, as he first indicated he would do, Bush appears set to move ahead and implement the sanctions this week or next.

“It’s important to the United States that Syria look at the situation; that Syria understand that there is a changed circumstance in the world, in the region; that Syria stop its support for terrorism,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said last week, within hours of the news of the bombing attack in Madrid. “If Syria chooses to ignore all those facts and ignore the positions that we and others have taken, then there’s not much prospect for our relationship,” he said.

The implication was clear: In the war against terrorism, Syria had to decide which side it was on.

“It’s much more about America than about Israel now,” said one official in a pro-Israel group who asked not to be named. “It’s about the war on terror and how free countries will deal honestly with repressive dictatorships.”

Syria has failed to fully meet any of the provisions under the act that might have averted punitive measures: a crackdown on Palestinian terrorist groups under Syrian control; a pullout from Lebanon; an end to weapons of mass destruction programs, and securing Syria’s border with Iraq.

Bush aides who suggested just weeks ago that the president would seek to water down the sanctions in the legislation as much as possible are now telling friends in Congress and Jewish community officials that Bush will probably go for the tougher sanctions among six outlined in the measure.

The legislation mandates an immediate ban on trade in “dual-use items” — material that could be used for weapons manufacturing — and allows Bush to choose two from a menu of six other sanctions.

Among those are three tough economic sanctions: A ban on U.S. investment in Syria, at a time when U.S. oil companies have expressed interest in exploring the country for reserves; a ban on U.S. exports to Syria; and a freeze on Syrian assets in the United States.

Referring to administration intentions, a senior congressional aide told JTA, “They’re telling us they’re going to choose at least one economic sanction.”

The other three sanctions reduce diplomatic relations, restrict the movement of Syrian diplomats in the United States and restrict Syrian access to U.S. airspace.

U.S. officials emphatically have counted out recalling the freshly appointed ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey. The other two measures are largely symbolic, given Syria’s small representation here and the low frequency of Syrian flights to the United States.

Engel had clamored for years for punitive measures against Syria because it harbored Palestinian terrorist groups and actively backed Hezbollah in south Lebanon, even after Israel’s 2000 withdrawal.

Initially, Bush administration officials, especially Secretary of State Colin Powell, balked at the act.

They saw it is hindering their efforts to bring Syria on board in Iraqi reconstruction. Powell flew to Damascus a year ago to meet with Syrian president Bashar Assad and elicited commitments from him to crack down on the terrorists and secure the border with Iraq, then newly occupied by the U.S.-led coalition.

Assad failed to do just about everything he promised. He nominally shut down Palestinian terrorist offices, but effectively allowed them to function. Security on the border with Iraq was sporadic at best.

It was a slap in the face to Powell. Assad’s failure to act cornered the administration and it could no longer ignore legislation that was becoming overwhelmingly popular in Congress.

Bush signed the act on a Friday night, the time the administration reserves for activities it would rather not share with the public, and the White House statement on the subject was about as “I’ve gotta do this but I don’t wanna” as it gets.

One oxymoron in the statement stood out even in a town famous for doublespeak: “My approval of the Act does not constitute my adoption of the various statements of policy in the Act as U.S. foreign policy.”

If that was a signal to Syria that it had time to catch up with the requirements to avoid the sanctions, Assad was not listening.

Officials at the State Department — who had been unenthusiastic about embracing any congressional act that tied their hands — gave up on the Syrians in January, when they confirmed initial intelligence reports that Syrian relief planes returning from Iranian earthquake zones in December were loaded with weapons destined for Hezbollah.

After that, one State Department official said, everything the Syrians promised was taken “with a grain of salt.”

Powell dropped his attempts to contain the act’s most avid proponent in the administration, Elliott Abrams, the White House Middle East adviser.

Israel naturally us pleased with the turn of events.

“I think the time is right,” Effi Eitam, the Israeli housing minister, told JTA on Tuesday. “At a time when Syria is more and more isolated, when America is trying to establish a chain of pro-Western regimes — Iraq, Israel, Jordan — it will reduce support for Hezbollah among the Lebanese.”

Syria’s support for Hezbollah was once the hallmark of its claim of leadership in the Arab world.

That world is gone, said Josh Block, a spokesman for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby.

“The Syria Accountability Act makes absolutely clear to Bashar Assad and the Syrian regime that America and the free world will not tolerate Syria’s support of terrorism, building weapons of mass destruction and destabilizing regimes and repressing its people,” Block said.

Now, with the Madrid bombing — and greater U.S.-European rapprochement on Iraq — the Syrians are likely to lose what they might have hoped was an insurance policy in European support. The Europeans have suspended talks on a trade agreement with Syria.

The problem the Syrians face now is how radically it can uproot decades of support for anti-Israel rejectionists, said Stephen P. Cohen, a scholar with the Israel Policy Forum.

“It may take the Syrians to the area where they are questioning themselves how much further can they go,” Cohen said. “I’m sure that is being discussed there at this time.”

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